How the CIA Profiles World Leaders

on September 22 | in CIA, Intelligence Analysis

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It’s 3PM on a Wednesday afternoon. Your team members are putting together a book for a Pentagon official’s upcoming trip to Latin America. Several of your brow-furrowed colleagues are deep into sharpening the analytic statements of their background reports.

On the other hand, you are raking the open sources to find out whether German is the only other language a certain foreign official can speak, and to what degree. You vaguely recall he studied abroad in Germany for two years, but does that mean that he can actually carry on a conversation? Trivial as the fact may be, it may actually help smooth some of the bumps in America’s current relations in Latin America.

You know the Pentagon official speaks some German, so if the two sides were able to exchange a few neutral words in this third language, perhaps they can find common ground over reminisces over Bavarian beer gardens.

A foreign official’s language ability — or some other obscure personal trivia — may probably be the least important piece of a particular national security puzzle. Yet these details could actually be the starting point between two sides.

In the CIA’s Directorate of Analysis (formerly the Directorate of Intelligence, or DI), analysts are usually assigned to one of several functions — political, economic, military, counterterrorism, and leadership. In most of the disciplines, your scope of research is neatly delineated. Political analysts keep policymakers up to speed on the political stability and national security of foreign countries. Econ analysts keep close tabs on the country’s growth indicators and economic well-being. And military analysts conduct research on foreign countries’ defense programs and capabilities.

Then there’s the leadership analyst.

What does a leadership analyst do? They put together short leadership profiles — or “LPs” — of world leaders. They’re the humble versions of what we usually call biographers. However, while biographers produce lengthy, in-depth narratives about personalities and world events, leadership analysts tightly profile a foreign leader’s policy and career histories. These profiles help policymakers “get to know” the person before an important meeting.

LPs covering a range of topics, from the leader’s policies on economic reform to his or her views on the decades-long strife with a neighboring country. Thus, leadership analysts usually read everything. Unlike the political, military, or economic analysts, there’s really no separate leadership “compartment” of reading material. It can be a lot of reading of both open source and classified material. Those who love the discipline (like myself) have a ball working on these bios.

Like most intelligence products, there’s a certain method and formula to writing LPs. And while I can’t divulge just what these products look like, CSIS’ Asia blog carries a fairly good replica of the LPs in its “Leaderboard.” This should provide a sense of the nature and purpose of the profiles.

LPs are considered one of policymakers’ “favorite” analytical products. Tidbits from the LPs have been known to help policymakers avert awkward situations or policy nightmares. Interesting facts about foreign leaders sometimes add levity to what can be a very heavy topic.

Finally, the utility of LPs won’t diminish in the foreseeable future. After all, they’re easy to write, contain helpful, actionable information, and at times can be a fun read.

Soo Kim is a former CIA analyst and linguist for Northeast Asia. She specializes in leadership dynamics, decision-making, authoritarian regimes, and political psychology. She is currently a national security fellow at a DC-based think tank.

photo: Two individuals who presumably have long leadership profiles written about them. (The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.)

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